In 1933, William Archer was introduced to the poet and painter, Rabindranath Tagore, by a mutual friend, Humayun Kabir. They met at Shantiniketan on a still cool morning after the rains. Tagore was sat outside on an easy chair, his drawing board and inks by his side. As Archer recounts, ‘I at once realised that behind that gracious, slightly frail but very majestic figure, there was a mind keenly alive to all that was contemporary in the West…And then we talked about his pictures. There were portfolios of them in the house. They were the most important thing, he said, which he now wanted to do and sitting in the balmy quiet of that moist October morning, I felt that nothing could be more important for Indian art than that he should go on creating ‘the form of things unknown.’ …Many of his pictures glowed with subtle colours but none of them had conscious subjects and all had sprung up from some hidden source of inspiration’ (W.G. Archer and M. Archer, India Served and Observed, London 1994, p. 30).
Archer on viewing the vast array of works, realised that he had ‘in fact visited him at a turning point in his career. Two methods were in question. The first was spontaneous and unconscious – the product of forces beyond his rational control. The shapes were tall, angular and often phallic. Sometimes they possessed an angular ferocity and appeared to express some kind of virile defiance. The other method was imitative…The early pictures were fresh, original and creative…‘ (ibid)
Archer concluded that ‘Rabindranath’s early style bore no relation to previous kinds of Indian painting, it in fact unconsciously contained some essential Indian elements – strong, bold outline, glowing colour, aggressive shapes. He had been, in other words ‘naturally Indian’. At the same time, he had broken completely with any ideas of naturalistic painting – the kind of art which had been associated with the neo-Bengal school and which stood in such contrast to modern art itself. Yet bold and vigorous though his distortions were, they none the less bore some definite relationship to modern India. Tagore had not painted political pictures but through their sense of vehement defiance they seemed to express the drive for independence’ (ibid p. 31)
Born in Calcutta into a wealthy Brahmin family Rabindranath Tagore went on to become one of the most revered poet-philosophers of his time. In 1913, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, the first non-Westerner to be honoured with the award. A poet, author, playwright and painter, Tagore’s creative output was immense. His career as a painter dates from around 1928, though he is known to have drawn sketches throughout his life. What began as doodling on his working manuscripts became an obsession after 1930 and it is thought that in the last ten years of his life he produced over two thousand pictures.